Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a hugger—a bear-like man who bonds with people through tight embraces. His hugging aligns with his firm belief in the value of personal diplomacy. Contravening diplomatic norms, he often goes to the airport to directly greet foreign dignitaries. He’s invited both American presidents whose terms have overlapped with his tenure, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, to visit India. Like Trump himself, Modi is committed to glad-handing, believing that the personal touch is the best way to overcome international disagreements.
Modi will get to test his faith in person on Sunday when he shares the stage with Trump in an event in Houston, Texas, titled “Howdy, Modi!” Scheduled to take place in a stadium that seats 50,000, the rally will be a testament to Modi’s popularity not just in India, where he recently won a landslide reelection, but among the broader South Asian diaspora.
Trump’s presence at the rally is an unusual one, and it comes at a time when the US State Department is criticizing India for tightening its grip on the troubled region of Kashmir, detaining local political leaders and cutting off communications with the outside world. There is increasing concern that Kashmir will simply be annexed into India outright, ending a decades-long period in which its status was being negotiated between India and its neighbor Pakistan. Varghese George, an expert on American-Indian relations, told The Washington Post that by attending the rally Trump was giving “virtual approval” to Modi’s aggressive Kashmir policy.
Trump’s courtship of Modi springs from many sources, some of which predate both leaders. India and the United States had chilly relations for many decades after the subcontinent achieved independence in 1947, in large part because of the policy of non-alignment established by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Cold War America took non-alignment as being close to covert pro-Communism and much preferred Pakistan to India.
The end of the Cold War and the inception of the War on Terrorism changed this dynamic. Since the 1990s, American foreign policy experts have come to see India as a potential bulwark against China. India, under Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh, had been receptive to American overtures, particularly the promise of a closer military alliance. The two hurdles to closer ties remain Kashmir (India has resisted repeated American offers to mediate) and trade (India has opened itself to foreign capital, but not nearly to the degree the United States wants).
In 2015, Obama and Modi signed a “US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region” that greatly intensified military cooperation between the two countries. But if Trump’s solicitude towards Modi fits in with long-standing bipartisan goals, it also has a particularly Trumpian stamp.
Trump and Modi are very similar figures in many ways. Modi is an authoritarian nationalist whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has demagogically exploited Islamophobia to gain power. As Washington Monthly argues, Modi has “made India a less tolerant place for minorities. Religious hate crimes have increased more than fivefold since Modi and the BJP came to power in 2014. Most of the perpetrators are part of the country’s vast Hindu majority. Most of the victims belong to the country’s population of 190 million Muslims.”
In a 2019 interview with The Times of India, former Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon acknowledged the parallels. “I started studying Modi in 2013,” Bannon claimed. “In fact, Modi…foreshadowed Trump. As a nationalist, Modi was a Trump before Trump. He said I put India and India’s interest first and I admire that.”
A slippery character, Modi might want to play up a shared Islamophobia, just as in the Obama years he argued that India and the United States were natural allies because they were both democracies.
But is India First really compatible with America First? Bannon himself, although long exiled from the White House, illustrates the problem, since he remains a key articulator of Trumpian ideology. Bannon might claim to admire India First, but he doesn’t much admire Indian immigrants to America. In fact, he notoriously advised Trump that American unity was being undermined by the success of Asian immigrants in Silicon Valley. Bannon has also praised the 1973 novel The Camp of Saints, which is set in a xenophobic dystopia where Europe is threatened by a flotilla bringing in a horde of Indian refugees. The novel ends with Switzerland as the lone, doomed outpost of the white race.
Bannon and Trump clearly hope that by praising Modi they can win over some Indian-American voters. Since 2016, Trump has made a play for the Indian-American vote. “We love the Hindus!” Trump said in a bizarre 2016 campaign video that featured a Bollywood soundtrack. This outreach to Indian-Americans parallels Trump’s attempt to woo Jewish-American voters by touting his strong support for Israel. In both cases, the campaigns yielded little or no results, because for minority communities in America, Trump’s xenophobia outweighs all else. In 2016, Trump only won 12 percent of the Indian-American vote, against 64 percent for Hillary Clinton (the remainder voted for another party or didn’t vote).
Beyond the Indian-American vote, Trump might want a closer alliance with India as a foreign policy goal, just as George W. Bush and Barack Obama did. As with previous presidencies, trade and Kashmir are nearly insurmountable hurdles. Trump has launched a trade war with India that is likely to be as inconclusive as all his other stabs at using tariffs to impose America’s will on its trading partners.
In theory, Trump might be able to make a shift on Kashmir since he has little regard for international norms. There’s no reason to think Trump would personally object to Modi’s annexing the region outright. But to do that, Trump would have to overcome his own State Department, something he has little aptitude for. As befits his reality-show presidency, Trump’s forays into policy are often only about photo ops rather than transforming the actual orientation of the government. Trump and Modi will probably have a bear hug on Sunday, but the disputes that divide India and the United States will continue to fester.
Bannon and Trump have their own peculiar kind of internationalism: the dream of a nationalist international. This can be seen in Trump’s friendliness towards Modi—and in his praise of authoritarian nationalists in Russia, Hungary, Brazil, and elsewhere. But this is an incoherent foreign policy, since governments hell-bent on pursuing their own national interests above all else will inevitably clash over matters of interest.